Tuesday, October 7, 2014



Melodrama as a form began in France in the late 18th century. It is a dramatic form which uses exaggerated plot elements and characters (often stereotypes or archetypal in nature) in order to appeal to the emotions of the audience. The language, behaviour, stage effects or events can all be called melodramatic in themselves. Originally, in the 18th and 19th centuries, melodrama referred to the specific form of theatre where orchestral music or song were used to accompany the action to add to the emotional and dramatic effect. Nowdays, Melodrama also is a style of drama that has been applied on the movies and television, and radio formats. The term originated from the early 19th-century French word mélodrame, which is derived comes from the Ancient Greek words melos (music) and drān (to do or perform).

The key features of Melodrama as a form are: pathos, overwrought or heightened emotion, moral polarization (good vs. evil), non-classical narrative structure (especially the use of extreme coincidence and deux ex machina to further plot elements), and sensationalism (emphasis on action, violence, and thrills). Melodrama rejects naturalism as a form as such but sometimes naturalistic set were used in Victorian and Edwardian melodrama and this was combined and contrasted with the non-naturalistic acting presented.

Beginning in the 18th century, melodrama was a technique of combining spoken recitation with short pieces of accompanying music. In such works, music and spoken dialogue typically alternated, although the music was sometimes also used to accompany what we know of as pantomime. The first full melodrama was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1762) and this was followed soon after by a set on duo and monodramas in the form evident in Georg work and his Ariadne auf Naxos (1775) and Medea (1778). Some bans on serious theatre in England meant that theatres presented dramas that were underscored with music and, borrowing the French term, called it melodrama. Eventually this style developed in Germany and England into the style we know of as Melodrama.

Operettas started to use melodrama techniques and sequences and Gilbert and Sullivan’s work often employs melodrama as does Loewe’s Brigadoon. During the 19th century, the form flourished in England, France and the United States of America. By the end of the 19th century, the term melodrama had nearly exclusively narrowed down to a specific genre of salon entertainment: more or less rhythmically spoken words (often poetry) – not sung, sometimes more or less enacted, at least with some simple narrative structure. Eventually Victorian Melodrama dominated as a form. Victorian Melodrama used six stock characters of the hero, the villain, the heroine, an aged parent, a sidekick and a servant of the aged parent engaged in a sensational plot featuring themes of love and murder. Often the good but not very clever hero is duped by a scheming villain, who has eyes on the ‘Damsel in Distress’. The plays have elements of Morality dramas since eventually good triumphs over evil. Some examples of Pre-Victorian Melodramas are Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery (1802) and Dimond’s The Broken Sword (1816). Some Victorian Melodramas were Boucicault’s The Streets of London (1864) and Phillips Lost in London (1867). 

Silent films in the early 20th century kept the tradition alive (see The Perils of Pauline from 1914) and elements of Melodrama can be seen in modern films such as Batman Forever, Burke and Hare and Sweeney Todd.

Year 7 Melodrama Unit:
Year 8 Melodrama Unit (TES Australia)
Drama and Media Combined Melodrama Unit

Brooks, Peter (1995). The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. Yale University Press. p. xv.
Costello, Robert B., ed. (1991). Random House Webster's College Dictionary. New York: Random House. p. 845.
Dirks T Melodrama Films filmsite.org website opinion
Singer, Ben (2001). Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 44–53.
Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Melodrama". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Branscombe, Peter. "Melodrama". In Sadie, Stanley; John Tyrrell, eds. (2001). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition. New York: Grove's Dictionaries.
Williams, Carolyn. "Melodrama", in The New Cambridge History of English Literature: The Victorian Period, ed. Kate Flint, Cambridge University Press (2012), pp. 193–219.
Michael Booth (1991) Theatre in the Victorian Age. Cambridge University Press.